I wish I had a great story to tell you about growing up eating kasha varnishkes, but I don’t. In fact, I had it, for the first time, last year at a Jewish deli and it was love at first bite. And at the time, I didn’t even know it was such a traditional dish. All I was excited about was that there was buckwheat in it and fried onions that, for reasons now known to me (one word, people – schmaltz!) were the best tasting fried onions I could think of. I liked the bowtie pasta, but my fat-loving stomach hinted that egg noodles might have been even better. But there are no bow-tie egg noodles are there?
To make a long story short, a couple of weeks ago, Mark Bittman of the Minimalist fame, wrote about kasha varnishkes in the New York Times. And when he mentioned that his grandmother made it all the time, and it was a childhood favorite dish, I made a mental note. Plus he so waxed poetic about schmaltz and fried onions, that the mental note quickly became a full-fledged obsession. Before I knew it, I couldn’t stop mentioning it in conversation as the next thing I was going to cook, and all my Jewish friends, upon hearing about kasha, would recount some childhood memory of theirs that involved eating this dish. Each. And. Every. One.
Except for me.
While chicken soup, matzo balls and gefilte fish have all been commonly occurring dishes at home, this one was noticeably missing. When I asked my mother about it, she didn’t even know what I was talking about. My father vaguely remembered something about his dad making it when my dad was a child. My mother claims to have no memory of it.
I, however, was not to be deterred from starting my own tradition. And so last week, I gathered all my ingredients, minus the schmaltz, and made it for dinner. I chose not to add schmaltz for several reasons. First, I didn’t have any on hand, and to make it, I would need some chicken fat and I lacked that. Secondly, in my efforts to be somewhat healthy, schmaltz would have thrown all that out the window. Third, I wanted to make something vegans could also make – just in case there are any vegans out there looking for Jewish vegan-friendly recipe.
Since I cheated and didn’t use schmaltz, I wanted the oil I used to impart a unique flavor on the dish — and so I cooked with unrefined sunflower oil, which is readily available at most Russian delis. It was amazing – the sunflower oil gave the onions its own special character, and I think I just might continue to make it this way, starting my very own tradition. If you can’t find this oil nearby, try using another type, or use butter to give the dish a richness and unique taste of its own.
Adapted from Mark Bittman; New York Times, October 22, 2008
Time: 30 minutes
2 cups chopped onions, or more
1/2 cup rendered chicken fat or olive oil
3/4 cup kasha (buckwheat groats)
Salt and ground black pepper
1/2 pound farfalle (bow-tie) or other noodles.
1. Put onions in a large skillet with a lid over medium heat. Cover skillet and cook for about 10 minutes, until onion is dry and almost sticking to pan. Add fat or oil, raise heat to medium high and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is nicely browned, at least 10 minutes or so longer.
2. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. In a separate, medium saucepan, bring 1 1/2 cups water to a boil, stir in the kasha and about a teaspoon of salt. Cover and simmer until kasha is soft and fluffy, about 15 minutes. Let stand, off heat and covered.
3. Salt the large pot of boiling water and cook noodles until tender but still firm. Drain and combine with the onions and kasha, adding more fat or oil if you like. Season with salt and lots of pepper and serve immediately.
Yield: 4 servings.
I have never heard of unrefined sunflower oil in my life. How fascinating! What is the flavor profile? There’s a Russian deli nearby. I’ll have to go check it out and see if they have it. I love kasha varnishkas too, and even though the boyfriend loves kasha above just about everything else in the world, he doesn’t like it with the pasta, which is totally cool, because that’s my favorite part! Thanks for the tip!
Ann, it tastes like sunflower seeds – so if you like those, you will love the sunflower oil. You want it to be unrefined though because it’s like unrefined olive oil – a lot more flavor. I get mine at International Foods in Brighton Beach — but I am sure a regular Russian deli will have it too. I am a huge fan of buckwheat myself – I actually have another good recipe for it. But will wait a bit before featuring it.
The problem with sunflower oil (and soybean oil and safflower oil and some others) is that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is way too high. I avoid those oils for that reason.
My daughter tells me that in Baltimore kasha varnishkes is called “Buckwheat & Bowties”. :)
robin @ caviar and codfish
This looks like a wonderful winter meal. I’ve never heard of unrefined sunflower oil either – nor have I ever been to a Russian deli! Guess I have my own hunt to go on!
As for your hunt… Manishewitz brand makes egg-noodle bow-ties. I’m a big fan. :)
I always make sure I use sunflower oil in my Russian recipes. Somehow, using olive oil just doesn’t feel right.
I once saw a man filling his car trunk with massive jugs of sunflower oil in Ukraine – so now I joke that it’s part of the Russian holy trinity: sunflower oil, dill, and sour cream!
Leisure Guy — i had no idea.. I still think that for certain things, a little bit won’t kill you :-) but i do see your point.
Robin – THANKS – i think i’m going to bow-tie egg noddles next time. As for finding it, Brighton Beach – not sure how far away you are. The nearest Russian community should have some.
Jessica – that’s quite true.. there are some very Russian things – like the ones you listed. I love sunflower oil – reminds me of my childhood.
Aah yes, the starch of my youth. I had forgotten about them though, and yours look delicious. I had a roommate in college, that made kasha varniskes with cabbage as well. She just boiled up slivers of julienned cabbage with the bow-ties. That was really nice too.
Actually, your instinct about egg noodles is right. I prefer to make kasha varnishkes with egg bow tie noodles. Manischewitz makes bow tie egg noodles in different sizes. If you take a look at Amazon.com, you will see that they carry this product, although you can usually find it in the kosher section of the supermarket, if it isn’t in the noodle section. Kosher grocers carry this item as well.